Welcome to the world's greenest soccer club

There's no meat on the menu where the Forest Green Rovers play. It's a team spreading an eco-friendly message while at the same time rising up the English soccer league charts.

A couple of hours before kickoff on a winter Saturday, Forest Green Rovers (FGR) chief groundsman Adrian Witchell said he'd been "having problems with the sun." The logical conclusion might have been that he had a horticultural issue on his hands. But Witchell was actually referring to an article about him in the pages of the UK's foremost tabloid newspaper, The Sun.

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The paper, which is best known for its brash headlines and sensationalist storytelling, had taken an interest in Witchell and the club's pioneering use of a self-operating, electric, solar-powered mower to cut what they're calling the world's first organic football pitch. Largely, it turns out, because when the mower sent him repeated text messages in the middle of one night, his wife thought he was having an affair.

Clubs from across Europe are curious about how the FGR maintains its stadium green — the groundskeeper has even been invited to talk about it at conferences

He wasn't, and in any event, the incident is by no means the most interesting thing about either Witchell or the ground he keeps. It also wasn't the first spark of media interest. Quite the opposite. The club from the tiny village of Nailsworth in southwest England, which has spent the vast majority of its 130-year history in the obscurity of semiprofessional soccer, has recently found itself in the spotlight. Albeit more for its endeavors off the — organic — pitch than for those on it.

This new chapter in the history of the Forest Green Rovers started in 2010 when local renewable energy tycoon Dale Vince "rescued" them from slipping even further down the non-league tiers relegation and from dire financial straits. He set about turning the club into a sustainable and environmentally friendly enterprise as well as assembling players that took them into the professional league for the first time last year.

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Carbon neutral

Given it wasn't of particular focus to major soccer clubs or their fans, Vince said they quickly saw they had an opportunity to communicate environmental issues to a whole new audience.

"We definitely weren't going to be preaching to the choir by taking sustainability into football," he told DW. "So that's what we decided to do, to run a green football club, to put these two things together in an improbable combination and see if we could use it as a channel to people — ultimately around the world."

Go Rovers! Solar panels provide electricity, you can charge your electric car in the parking lot, the jerseys are bright green — and the mascot is showing its teeth

Vince is a youthful 57. He moves through the main stand at FGR's New Lawn ground smiling and greeting fans, sporting tight jeans and an equally tight haircut.

He made his fortune in green energy, particularly wind farms, and his first ever turbine still stands like a totem pole on a hill over a club, which no lesser body than the United Nations has recognized as the world's first carbon neutral football club.

Read more: Major sports climb onto the 'green' bandwagon

The club's green credentials are in full view. Rooftop solar panels generate power. There are promotional posters for meat substitute products, electric car charging points, stands painted with chemical-free paint, an "Eco-Trail" showing fans the club's sustainability efforts and the players' shirts feature the logo of radical environmental group Sea Shepherd.

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Meat-free football

But the change that has attracted the most media attention has been the removal of meat from the menu.

The club was declared the world's first official vegan club last year. When on work duty all staff from support personnel to the players and manager must eat vegan food. They can choose from an award winning menu cooked by chef Jade Crawford and her team.

Read more: How green is your soccer match beer cup?

"Some of the players have actually turned vegan," Crawford said. "If you do it properly it really makes a difference. We try and source all our food organically, so it is expensive, but that's what Dale wants and we're really trying to spread the message."

Though fans of many established teams dismiss the vegan exercise as a fad and claim the club are doing nothing more than buying their way up the leagues, the Q-pie — a vegan take on a chicken and leek pie — has won awards and the vibe is transmitting to the FGR regulars.

Still empty but not for long. These days about 3,000 fans watch home games in the stadium, twice as many as just a few years ago

"I came for the football first," said fan Chris Latham. "But one game while queuing for food, I saw the advert detailing the environmental impact of meat and I thought maybe I should try and do something about that."

He did, and is now vegan. "The food here is good so it was easy in that respect and I've never looked back really."

Spreading the word

Back on the pitch, which has been so successful and reliable that Adrian Witchell was invited to speak at a European groundkeepers' conference hosted by Spain's top flight club Real Madrid, he's busy preparing the surface. The organic turf is fertilized with seaweed and any water is drained off and stored nearby to be used again.

Read more: Sports events leave giant 'ecological footprint'

"Even the nets are biodegradable," he said, standing on his immaculate pitch that has also drawn interest from clubs including Ajax and Stoke City. "I need to know where everything I use comes from down to the last detail … I don't use pesticides or fertilizers or any of that rubbish."

And the approach is proving a hit, especially with young, family-oriented fans. By the time the match begins, 3,000 spectators have packed the stadium — double the average attendance of a couple of years ago. That's even though their opponents, Morecambe, have only brought a few dozen loyal followers on the long journey from the northwest.

Even if they sometimes lose, the team has hardly ever ranked as highly in the league as it does today

If things go the way Vince would like and pending planning permission, the club will move into a new stadium  outside the nearby town of Stroud . It would be the world's first to be constructed entirely from wood.

"We've done what we can here in what I would call a retrofit scenario," Vince said of the current stadium. "The location is not very good for access and parking and for car-free travel to the ground. Those problems will go away for us if we get to move into our new ground."

He says the new stadium would also allow the club to push the green boundaries of soccer.

What it would do for their game remains to be seen. Despite being favorites and dominating against Morecambe, the visiting side hits a late goal and FGR lost one-nil. But with the team nearly as high as they ever have been in the league, the fans still go home happy.

Soccer: A green sport, or is that just the field?

A profitable game

No sport is able to attract fans like soccer. With the Euro 2016 football championship underway in France, UEFA is expecting some 2.5 million spectators in stadiums from Paris to Marseille, and 150 million fans watching around the world. It's a lucrative business: 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion) in TV rights, advertising deals and ticket sales. But does this all come at the environment's expense?

Soccer: A green sport, or is that just the field?

Extra emissions

To take part in the FIFA World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, the French team took a 15-day boat trip to South America. Travel time today has been slashed: ever more, teams now arrive at international tournaments by plane. Iceland facing off against Portugal in the eastern French city of Saint-Étienne? A loss for the climate: A flight from Reykjavik to Paris spews as much CO2 as half a year of driving.

Soccer: A green sport, or is that just the field?

Model stadium

Stadiums have always been part of the game, from Wembley to the Allianz. But when it comes to environmentally friendly stadiums, FC Augsburg leads the way. Their home is carbon neutral: instead of artificially heating the pitch, the stadium makes use of naturally heated groundwater, saving 10,000 liters (2,640 gallons) of oil per match - the amount used by eight single-family homes in one year.

Soccer: A green sport, or is that just the field?

Energy producer

The Augsburg arena has a rival when it comes to environmental bragging rights: the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, a Euro 2016 host venue, has since May 2013 produced more energy than it consumes, thanks to photovoltaic roof panels, a rainwater harvesting system and innovative ventilation columns. The stadium's construction also used 4,000 cubic meters (141,000 cubic feet) of renewable wood.

Soccer: A green sport, or is that just the field?

Waste separation? Not likely

Up to 80,000 spectators are expected for the Euro 2016 final at the Stade de France in Paris on July 10. That's a lot of beer and snacks: at the Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, the average fan generated about a kilogram (roughly 2 pounds) of waste per game. Only 18 percent of that trash was recycled, according to UEFA's "Social Responsibility Report."

Soccer: A green sport, or is that just the field?

Have another round

Of course, beer and soccer go hand-in-hand: around 10 million cups are downed every year in Germany's two professional leagues. In the 2015 and 2016 season, more than half of those cups were of the disposable variety. But at the European championship in France, UEFA plans to use reusable cups in eight of the 10 stadiums - also in Nice.

Soccer: A green sport, or is that just the field?

Balls in bulk

A key part of soccer is, of course, the ball. Hand-sewn balls are produced in a factory in Sialkot, in eastern Pakistan - 60 million in one European Championship year alone. The latex used for the inside of the ball is shipped in from rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, only a few of which are sustainably managed. Eco-conscious balls have yet to bounce their way into the world of football.